In 2002 I worked for an entrepreneur from Liechtenstein who was the chairman of an international charity devoted to preventing drug abuse by children. He hosted the annual trustees meeting at his Italian villa on Lake Lugano — right on the border between Italy and Switzerland — and invited me to attend so I could present the organization’s annual report.
The trustees were a pretty powerful group of people — the President of Colombia, an ex-Formula One race car driver, a McKinsey director, Nino Cerutti (the men’s fashion designer), and assorted European royals, including the head of the charity, the Queen of Sweden. Having never actually met royalty, I fretted beforehand about the proper form of address one used when greeting a queen. Your Majesty? Your Royal Highness? Your Serene Highness? Anyway, the meeting was held, a nice lunch was enjoyed, and by-and-by the Queen had to leave and take a limo to Milan for the flight back to Stockholm. Everyone lined up in the hallway of the villa to say good-bye — a reverse receiving line I suppose — and I took my place next to Nino Cerutti, who had correctly identified my gabardine suit as being one of his designs, pointing out archly to me that it was obviously off-the-rack (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I stole it for $200 from Filene’s Basement) but I’m very much a slob when it comes to clothes, yet I liked that suit a lot.
The Queen’s bodyguards went ahead of her Highness to check out the security situation while she made her way down the line of guests and said her goodbyes, one-by-one. As the security team passed in front of me I had to take a step backwards to get out of the way. The Queen was three people away, then two people away, surrounded by my hovering, obsequious boss. Then she was right there, saying goodbye to Nino and air-kissing him on the cheeks three times. (I never got that air kiss thing down. Left-right-left? Right-left-right? Make contact? I always end up smashing heads or doing something inappropriate like actually making kissy sound effects.)
Sensing I might lick her cheek, the Queen took my hand in both of her’s, looked me in the eyes, spared me the air-kiss and told me what a pleasure it had been to meet me. I’m sure it was, as I had been kept far away from her during the meeting and lunch, but she was very nice and a very attractive woman so I was charmed and got ready to say, “Thank you, your Highness” but I noticed something was very wrong with my back. Right below my right shoulder blade. Wrong and getting wronger. Like, holy shit, I’m on fire kind of wrong.
The security team had backed me into a big candle on an iron sconce and I was now ablaze.
I let go of the Queen’s hand and disrobed. I grabbed the collar of the suit coat and pulled it over my head right in front of her. She backed away in terror.
“Are you alright?” she shouted most un-serenely as I threw my coat on the floor and stomped out the flames. Nino Cerutti slapped out the flames on my smoldering shirt with his bare hands. The smell of burning wool filled the hallway. I am grateful the Swedish Secret Service didn’t gun me down on the spot.
“Quite alright,” I managed to say with perfect aplomb. The woman to my right, the teenaged daughter of the President of Colombia, was horrified and out of sympathy for my plight (or distraught to miss her big moment), she started weeping. The Queen consoled her and I took the opportunity to put the suit coat back on before my boss could see my thermonuclear lapse in etiquette. Too late. He wound up having his lackey fire me over the phone a few months later. I was forever in the penalty box after desecrating his royal moment.
“I think you need a new suit,” Mr. Cerutti said after the Queen was hustled to her car.
“Hook me up, Nino,” I said. He never did, even though it was a Nino Cerutti suit.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep my back to the wall, smelling like burnt hair. I still have pieces of the coat in the garage, serving as a bike chain degreaser as a reminder of my brush with royalty.